by Kate van Heel
There are many reasons to grow Astrantias. I have chosen them as the plant of the month for July but they can be in flower from May to October so any Spring/ Summer month would do really! They will grow in a wide variety of conditions, taking soils from moist to quite dry. They are equally happy growing on chalk or clay soils, thriving in shade or in sun providing there is moisture at the root. As an added bonus, they’re resistant to attacks from slugs and snails. What is not to love!
Astrantias (also known as Hattie’s pincushion or masterwort) have been found in British gardens since Tudor times. Their pincushion heads of cream, pink and green flowers, surrounded by papery green-tipped bracts, were once collected from the wild for medicinal use, but later on became established in cottage gardens, becoming showier as plantsmen and women selected stronger and more colourful forms.
Most plants encountered will be forms of Astrantia major, but more spreading is Astrantia maxima with its larger heads of sugary pink with flatter, broader bracts.
Here it grows with Cotinus coggygria ‘Royal Purple’ as a backdrop.
Astrantia major ssp. involucrata ‘Shaggy’ is a variety notable for having flowers that are both large and pure white, tinted green on the edge of each ray floret. It is much desired but plants sold as ‘Shaggy’ often aren’t. The real thing can be told by the twisted nature of the extra-long bracts. Each is deeply cut, with a nipped-in middle. Like other cottage garden Astrantias, the flowers are good for cutting. Unlike Astrantia maxima, ‘Shaggy’ can be rejuvenated by cutting back close to the ground to give a second flush of flowers.
Astrantia major ‘Sunningdale Variegated’ is a yellow variegated leaf form originating in 1966.The leaves form a dense mound which appear in the spring garden. Each leaf is generously margined with a yellow border which whitens first with age and then turns green later in the summer so that the plant appears non-variegated. The flowers are white, tinted green with a slight hint of pink. It is one of the tallest of the Astrantia major cultivars. In my garden it grows in a sunny position as well as in dappled shade under a Callicarpa shrub.
Astrantia ‘Buckland’ is probably my favourite astrantia as I have it growing in several places. It comes into bloom earlier than the other cultivars in my garden but as the flowers are sterile it continues to flower until well into October. Each flower of Astrantia ‘Buckland’ is relatively flat with bracts that are white, tinged green at the tip, surrounding the pale pink flowers. As the older flowers start to lose their colour I prune out those flowering stems, leaving the newer ones in place. Before long another lot of flowering stems will appear giving a wonderful continuity of flowering.
My final selection is Astrantia major Gill Richardson Group.
The plant itself is named after the Lincolnshire Plantswoman Gill Richardson, an admirer and grower of Astrantia for which she gave seed from her collection to the Norfolk Nurseryman John Metcalf. He selected a dark red form which he introduced at the Chelsea Flower Show in 2004. For a more intense colour it is best grown in as much light as possible, although I grow it on a partly shaded bank amid dark leaved Heucheras and alongside Persicaria ‘Pink Elephant’.
Astrantias can be divided in spring. Lift the plant with a garden fork and pull the plant apart. Replant straightaway or pot divisions on.
You can also grow Astrantias from seed. Carol Klein collects seed in autumn and sows immediately on to damp compost, covering with a layer of grit. The seeds may germinate straightaway but if not, she then leaves them outside over winter, as the cold breaks the dormancy of the seed. In spring, the seedlings should appear.
Images courtesy of Kate van Heel